Christopher Stowell has, in effect, thrown down the ballet gauntlet with Oregon Ballet Theatre's ambitious and intermittently successful program of premieres last weekend. His company means business.
Business in the sense of bringing new works from some of the today's top modern ballet choreographers (Peter Martins, Helgi Tomasson, Kent Stowell); in the sense of working to raise the standard of technical accomplishment among company dancers; in bringing national attention to what had been, for years, a sleepy regional ballet company.
At Saturday's opening night performance, there was some accomplished dancing on display in three very difficult and different new ballets. But there were also flag-raising moments throughout: inaccurate ensemble work, unmusical dancing, stone-faced performances. OBT may be on the ascent, but the uneven level of technical achievement across the company still needs attention.
The choreographers on display held up their end of the bargain reasonably well: extraordinarily so in Peter Martins' “Ash,” (1991) an appealing exercise in frigid minimalist movement. Set to a driving score by Michael Torke, it's one long punishing crescendo which felt even more punishing because of the ear-splitting volume at which the piece was piped in, pre-recorded (no ensemble credited in the program), through the Keller's inferior sound system.
Martins moves a quintet of couples, outfitted in pastels, through chillingly precise stop-and-start movement: some skittish with quick footwoork, some bravura leaps and turns: the eight company dancers nearly nailed it. Soloist Alison Roper did well by it; big-boned Artur Sultanov, who looked really exhausted about halfway through the dance, did slightly less well. The performance received a hardy ovation, the evening's biggest.
Helgi Tomasson, who directs the San Francisco Ballet, has created a charming romantic curtain-raiser with “Blue Rose.” Elen Kats-Chernin's romance meets ragtime score for violin and piano had plenty of rhythmic bite and swoon, so it's unfortunate that pianist Carol Rich and violinist Margaret Bichteler fell short on both counts.
The lackluster musical performance didn't stop, too much, some very expressive dancing in Tomasson's attractive work: highlights included steely virtuosic work from Yuka Iino, charming partner work from tiny, adorable Steven Houser and Anne Mueller; and an especially eloquent duet for that lovely dancer Kathi Martuza and Artur Sultanov, which failed only when it occasionally devolved into melodrama.
Kent Stowell's world premiere contribution, “Through Eden's Gates,” most notably missed the mark. A lopsided vaudevillian valentine with influences ranging from Gene Kelly to Bob Fosse, Stowell's episodic work veers from the whimsically joyful (most notably in “The Serpent's Kiss” and “Paseo”) to the surprisingly inept (a beside-the-point blacklight number and underrehearsed magic track in “Graceful Ghost Rag/Haunted Labyrinth”). There are gold spangles, virtuosic solo turns (Ronnie Underwood especially) and the sometimes musically sensitive choreography (pianists Carol Rich and Robert Ashens very much in their element with Bolcom's boisterous duo piano tunes). But the piece does not gel. When Stowell appears to run out of ideas, he puts his dancers in simple canons. And the work simply runs out of steam in its last ten minutes, and ends half-heartedly.
Christopher Stowell, Kent's son, has decided to program “Through Eden's Gates” again for OBT's 2007-08 season. This is not an entirely unmerited decision, as there is much to like about the work. But let's hope that the elder Stowell spends some time bringing out more pleasure and whimsy in his new ballet, and that OBT Ballet Master Lisa Kipp insists on uniform ensemble dancing.
An important side note: I still don't understand why most of the classical music and dance companies/presenters in town insist on chatty, long-winded pre-curtain speeches – before a note is played or a step danced. Savvy arts administrators in most other cities know what speaks best first: the work.
(photo by Andy Batt, courtesy of OBT - Kathi Martuza and Ronnie Underwood)